May 12, 2016

Should we ban atheist billboards? Skepchick says yes.

I get it. Sometimes you need a headline so compelling that your readers are simply compelled to click on it. Maybe that's why yesterday, this Skepchick headline appeared on my screen:

I clicked.

I was prepared to see, perhaps, some nuanced discussion, but no, I was seriously let down. Today, I'd like to talk about Roth's first paragraph. Lemme link it up real quick:

It’s not even the lack of design skills. One out of one-hundred of them usually comes out ok. It’s not even that I think censorship is a good idea. It’s not. It’s just that the majority (that 90 out of 100 ratio) of atheist billboards are so darn terrible that they make us all look like seething, holier-than-thou assholes to the rest of the world. Yep. Holier than thou, arrogant jerks that will never change someone’s mind.

In principle, I agree. I don't think arrogant jerkiness changes minds, and I typically try to avoid it myself (although, admittedly, sometimes I just love to troll). But what really interested me was that "90 out of 100 ratio". I mentioned this in the comments of the piece, but a billboard was part of the way that I, personally, found my last freethought society--they ran a "Godless in [Location]? You're not alone." At the time, I was a Christian, so I don't know why the billboard lodged in my brain, but some years later, after it was long gone, I googled for the billboard, found the name of the organization, and met people who supported me at a time when I desperately needed it.

So I wondered, is that really the ration of "good" atheist billboards to bad? I know, hyperbole, but I like facts. So I decided to take a (very informal) look at atheist billboards. Here's what I found.

First, let me explain my methodology. As mentioned, this is a very informal survey. I clicked on Google Images, input "atheist billboards" and picked the first 20 images that came up. Some of these were from news stories about vandalism, but I still put them in as pictured. My only criteria was that the billboard had to be 1. real and 2. from a different organization (some of the billboards, however, overlap).

After that, I divided them into three categories: Not Aggressive, Moderately Aggressive, Very Aggressive.

Not Aggressive: Doesn't make a claim that could reasonably be considered offensive.
Moderately Aggressive: Claim may be considered offensive by some, but not all, viewers.
Very Aggressive: This is going to seriously piss off a lot of people.

In the end, 8 of my 20 billboards fell into the not aggressive; 5 fell into the moderately aggressive; and 7 fell into the very aggressive.

Not Aggressive:

So that's about 40%. Assuming this held for a hypothetical 100 billboards, that means 40 of them--or four times what's mentioned in the opening paragraph before--would be of this nature, and indeed, these are the types that I see most often.

Moderately Aggressive:

These make specific claims that could be offensive, but the phrasing itself isn't particularly. I would count the Jefferson board as Not Aggressive,'s not a real Jefferson quote. Using a quote without checking attribution docks points because it's really just confirmation bias.


Very Aggressive:

So, that comes out to about 35%. 35 out of a 100 atheist billboards would fall into this.

60 atheist billboards, total, would be aggressive...not 90.

And let's take a moment to peruse the competition, so to speak, m'kay?

These are real billboards. In my area, on my regular commit, I pass three different Christian billboards with messages that I would consider incredibly aggressive--billboards that would cause hell-raising if they were from an atheist perspective.

Perhaps the most disturbing--and I had to run this down from several sources, because I didn't believe it:


I'm not saying two wrongs make a right. I'm saying we live in a world where Christian privilege is frustrating, and I don't blame the groups that decide to needle it.

Sometimes, it's the best way to remind them we are here.

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